By Victor Ndoma-Egba
December 27, 2023 dawned in a very grim manner. As I woke up I saw a news item on the scroll bar of Channels Television that Ghali Umar Na’Abba 8th Speaker of the House of Representatives had passed on at the age of 65. The son of a wealthy Kano aristocrat, he became Speaker by default after the removal of Salisu Buhari, a short lived Speaker after a forgery scandal. A man of steeled convictions he became Speaker at the defining moment of our democracy.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military Head of State whom providence had thrown up following the assassination of the charismatic yet tempestuous General Murtala Mohammed, and who had played a critical role in our unfortunate civil war had become President on our return to democracy, or is it civil rule, in 1999. President Obasanjo had come with messianic zeal to create a Nigeria after his own image. There was however a problem, Speaker Na’Abba. Obasanjo accused the legislature of overstepping its bounds. Na’ Abba replied that Obasanjo was a captive of his military antecedents and insisted that we were now in a constitutional democracy.
I joined the Fifth Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria when I was elected Senator by my people in 2003. President Obasanjo had ensured that Speaker Na’Abba did not return to the House of Representatives in 2003 but I met him as he had become a reference point for legislators. We needed his insight especially in the delicate challenge of keeping the legislature independent of the executive and managing the image of the Senate as pioneer chairman of the newly created Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs; and later Deputy Senate Leader, and later Leader of the Senate. We became friends.
I was still trying to digest the news of Speaker Na’Abba’s death when my younger brother called to say Oluwarotimi Odunayo Akeredolu, the much beloved Governor of Ondo State had died. It was public knowledge that Aketi, as he was famously known, was having life threatening health challenges and he had already died many times before through rumors and speculation. I dismissed my brother and told him that this was just one more of his many deaths. The difference was, sadly, this time Aketi was truly dead. Not long after there was an official statement announcing his demise.
I first met Aketi in 1975. He along with Onueze Okocha, better known as OCJ OKocha, Awa Kalu, Adegboyega Awomolo, all very prominent lawyers today and the late Moses Pere Okoro were very active in the Law Students Association of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Aketi was President of the Association at the time. I was Secretary General of the equivalent association in the University of Lagos with Yemi Akisanya who was to become General Counsel of oil giant, Mobil, as President. From Ahmadu Bello came Chrysanthus Senlong who became a judge of the Federal High Court, and Haruna Abubakar who became Deputy President of the Senate in 1999 and Yahaya Mahmud Zaria who became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (both of blessed memory). Then only four universities in Nigeria offered Law, University of Lagos, University of Ife, University of Nigeria and Ahmadu Bello University. We were all very active in the National Association of Nigerian Law Students and struck friendships that have endured. University of Nigeria was then not very visible in the Association. We were to deepen our friendships in the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island which was the only campus of the school at the time.
Aketi has always been political, as a student he was, as a professional who attained the highest rank in the profession, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, he became President of the Nigerian Bar Association. He had been Attorney General of his home state, Ondo and later Governor and died in office. Completely detribalized, as primarily evidenced by his cross cultural marriage to Betty, an Ibo whom he met during his NYSC days in Enugu. Friendship to him was sacred. I recall his surprise visit to us his classmates (Olaseinde Kumuyi who became Chief Judge, Ibrahim Muktari Katsina, former Attorney General and later Secretary to Katsina Government, Oyewale Akinrinade former member of Oyo State House of Assembly and late Ijeoma Offonry (nee Enyeazu) an Abia State High Court judge) serving in Bauchi in 1979.
On a personal note he stood with me in my dark moments including the darkest one. When I lost my Calabar home to the EndSARS riot in October 2020 he was the first to call to commiserate. When my wife died three weeks later in a motor accident near Ore he took charge and ensured along with Bayo Ojo and Ike Ekweremadu that her body was flown to Abuja immediately with the other casualties. He was a regular visitor to me during the period. He was supportive of me professionally, politically and socially. I recall his concern when he thought I was getting late in taking silk.
December 27, 2023 was a lesson that only in death and dying do we find true democracy. Grief was shared equally between the North West (Na’Abba) and South West (Akeredolu) geo-political zones. Death does not discriminate between the mighty or the lowly, rich or poor, male or female, young or old, Christian, Moslem or atheist, it levels us all and we are all enfranchised to die. Both men were fighters for constitutionalism, stared power in the face without blinking, they were crusaders for justice, belonged to the same generation and shared clear visions of Nigeria of their dreams. When is the best time to die?
It is not the quantity but quality of our lives that matter, not the length of our years but the life in the years. Both men certainly had life in all of their years and lived rich and worthy lives. I pray that Betty Akeredolu and Hajia Na’Abba and their respective families will be consoled by the words of Louisa Mary Alcott in “Little Men” “Simple genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and it is the only riches we can take out of this world.”
While we pray for the peaceful repose of their souls, there is no better time to die than when one dies.
Victor Ndoma-Egba CON, SAN, Leader of the 7th Senate and ex-Chairman of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was a classmate and friend of Aketi